It’s come to our attention that one of this season’s ballyhooed debut novelists goes by the handle Andrew Foster Altschul. Now there are a number of reasons for using the middle name – maybe he’s into trochaic hexameter; maybe he’s from a Spanish-speaking country; maybe he wants to avoid being confused with that other Andrew Altschul (we can sympathize). But it also occurred to us that, given the cover design for Mr. Altschul’s 600-page debut, Lady Lazarus, customers who forgot to bring their glasses to the bookstore may mistake the novel for some new release by David Foster Wallace. Which, marketing-wise, could turn out to be a happy accident. If all goes well, we’d like to see marketing departments rebrand some of their top-selling authors. Coming soon to a book jacket near you:Chuck Kloster Fosterman, Wallace Foster Davidson, Robert Froster, William Faulkster, Jonathan Safran Fo(st)er, E.M. Fo’ster, J.K.F. Rowling, Kaye Foster Gibbons (author of Ellen Gibbons Foster), Alfred, Lord Fostrington, The Marquis de Fosterford, Foster Coraghessan Boyle, Foster Madox Foster, Haldor Foster Laxness, and Fabriel Fostria Farquez?
For the President’s brother, you would think it would be pretty easy to get your first novel published. Especially when that novel includes a thinly fictionalized account of life with the President’s father. You’d be wrong, though. Such is the case of Obama’s half-brother, Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo, who today announced the publication of his semi-autobiographical novel, Nairobi to Shenzhen. The book draws extensively on Ndesandjo’s life in Kenya and China–where he currently lives and works as a consultant–and prominently features an account of his relationship with the President’s father. But it wasn’t released by a major publishing house, nor did it win Ndesandjo a hefty advance. Rather, Ndesandjo published the book himself, using Aventine Press, a POD self-publishing company.
Until now, Ndesandjo has kept a remarkably low profile, avoiding both the spotlight and his brother’s coattails. His greatest contribution to the 2008 election season was a statement that he was “proud of his brother.” When approached by a New York Times columnist hungry for information about the President’s family life, Ndesandjo stayed mum, commenting that he “had a limited interest in their father” and, “Life’s hard enough without all the excess baggage.”
A lot can change in a year, and it seems that Ndesandjo has decided to cash in. The popularity of Obama’s autobiography Dreams of My Father in the lead-up to the 2008 election and the insanity of the birther movement have contributed to a public interest in the details of President Obama’s paternity. Despite his insistence that some things are best left forgotten, Ndesandjo has stated that the novel explores his parents’ relationship in detail. In a Reuters report leading up to the novel’s release, Ndesandjo described his father as abusive, a man who beat his wife and children, stating “I remember times in my house when I would hear screams and I would hear my mother’s pain.”
Ndesandjo is clearly not afraid to take advantage of any residual Obamania (though he has said 15% of the profits from the book will go to support Chinese orphans). The book launch was scheduled for the one year anniversary of Obama’s historic election (and several weeks before his inaugural trip to China this month), and the story was quickly picked up by virtually every major media source in the country. Nor did he forget to mention that he had another, autobiographical book in the works, this one dealing with his relationship with his brother. Looks like that hefty advance might be on the way after all.
There’s a charming story about the power of independent bookstores in the Seatle PI.Book sales can have a curious alchemy. They have been spurred by all sorts of things, such as happenings in the news or mentions on Oprah, but seldom in the history of bookdom has one title ridden to new readership all because of a T-shirt from Texas.In this case a customer and a bookseller struck up a conversation because of the t-shirt the bookseller was wearing. The conversation soon turned to books and the customer recommended A Small Death in Lisbon, a World War II mystery from 2002 by Robert Wilson. The bookseller read and enjoyed the book and then set into motion one of the unique and amazing things about independent bookstores. She put it on the “staff recommendations” shelf, and started pushing the book. It wasn’t long before A Small Death in Lisbon was a local phenomenon.The article reminded me of what was probably my favorite thing about working in a bookstore, the ability to give people my favorite books. At independent bookstores in particular, customers really trust booksellers, who can then have a noticeable impact on the reading community. For example, I remember watching excitedly as books that I recommended — The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis and The Horned Man by James Lasdun were two — climbed the store’s bestseller list. Patrick, a sometime Millions contributor, had people all across town talking about Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim and Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (both of which I read on his recommendation).And this is why I love independent bookstores. Chain stores are clean and comfortable like hotel lobbies, but, walking into one, you never feel as though you are about to discover something new. For more on why I like indies better than chains, check out my post on the topic from a couple years ago: What Makes a Bookstore.
The long-awaited Iraq Study Group Report has been making headlines for months as Americans, weary of the war and our continuing struggles in Iraq, look for some fresh angles on this seemingly intractable mess. It should come as no surprise then that the book version of the report, which hit stores today, is shaping up to be a bestseller, as the Amazon ranking makes clear (and as has been discussed in a couple of wire stories today).In this respect, it follows in the footsteps another report by an independent bipartisan group that turned out to be a hit in stores, The 9/11 Commission Report, which was deemed sufficiently well-crafted to be named a National Book Award finalist. Not only that, a Graphic Adaptation of the book was created as well. The (salacious) granddaddy of this genre, of course, was the Starr Report, which sold approximately one million copies in book form but is now more or less out of print. (It will interesting to see if the two books mentioned above are still in print eight years from now. I suspect they will be.)Americans are often derided here and abroad for not being readers and for being disengaged with current events, but I think the success of these books goes a long way toward suggesting otherwise.Update: If you’d prefer to read the whole Iraq Study Group Report online (or print off a copy) you can get it at the United States Institute of Peace Web site, where, according to a Washington Post article (which has a lot of great tidbits about the report and how popular its been bookstores) “400,000 people downloaded the report within hours” of its release.
Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) is an exhaustive dissection of the physical, mental, and behavioral causes of an epidemic disease, a massive project that also manages to anatomize the folly of the author who undertook it. In The Anatomy, Burton provides specific suggestions to mitigate melancholy through one’s diet, “the mother of diseases, let the father be what he will.”
This so-called “Robert Burton Diet” is as relevant today as it was in the 17th century, for who among us can claim to be entirely free of the melancholic affliction? Atkins, South Beach, Microbiome, Paleo: all these faddish regimens might slim you down, but can they regulate your humours? I think not.
Therefore, without further ado, I give you the Robert Burton Diet.
Only those with strong constitutions should partake of beef, which engenders “gross melancholy blood.” If you must, find a cow from Portugal to eat, preferably one that is gelded or, alternatively, an old sad one that has “been tired out with labor.”
Pork is also off the menu, especially for those who “live at ease” or are otherwise “unsound of body or mind” — that is, most of us. But it’s so moist! Precisely the problem. Pork is too moist and “full of humours,” which upset sensitive stomachs and could bring on the dreaded “quartan ague,” which recurs every 72 hours.
Need we even mention goats? These “rammish,” bearded beasts clearly “breed rank and filthy substance.” For goat-lovers, a kid is best, the younger, cuter, more tender, and less rammish the better.
“All venison,” pleasant meat though it may be, “is melancholy, and begets bad blood.” Should you decide to treat yourself, break out those bows or rifles, because hunted deer is supposedly better than store-bought for those of melancholic disposition.
Anything is preferable to hare, a “black meat, melancholy, and hard of digestion” that breeds incubus and “causeth fearful dreams.” (Burton doesn’t say whether these nightmares will be worse if you kill the rabbit yourself.)
And what of heads, feet, bowels, brains, entrails, marrow, fat, blood, skins, inward parts (heart, liver, spleen, etc.)? Sure, if you want to keep moping around forever, dig in.
OK, so meat is pretty much verboten. Perhaps we should look elsewhere in the animal kingdom for sustenance?
Don’t even think about fowl, especially those morally suspect avian creatures flying in from Northern Europe and Russia: “Though these be fair in feathers, pleasant in taste, and have a good outside, like hypocrites, white in plumes, and soft, their flesh is hard, black, unwholesome, dangerous, melancholy meat.” If there’s one thing I can’t abide eating, it’s a dissembling bird.
The Burton Diet doesn’t sound great so far, but maybe fish will provide us with sumptuous delights…
Easy on the seafood, which yields “little and humorous nutriment.” You don’t want to end up like the Carthusian monks, who are “subject to more melancholy than any other Order” because of their fish-eating and solitary living.
Though classical opinion varies widely, Burton is willing to roll the dice on lobster, crab, and lampreys, quoting Paulus Jovius’s opinion that none speak against the latter but inepti [fools] and scrupulosi [the scrupulous].” Far be it from me to gainsay Burton, but after Googling an image of a lamprey, I wouldn’t eat one.
I know what you’re all dying to ask: Can I eat carp? Unfortunately, for once Burton doesn’t have the answer. Who would have thought that this lowly fish could stump one of the most learned minds in Europe? “Carp is a fish of which I know not what to determine,” Burton admits with an air of melancholy resignation.
Depressed yet? Well, nothing cheers one up quite like milk and cookies, but only if it’s asses’ milk washing down those chocolate chips. Every other milk increases melancholy.
And cheese-lovers beware, because the older, stronger, and harder cheeses are especially troublesome for the melancholic. If you’re hankering for a slice, make it Banbury, which Shakespeare lovers will instantly recognize from this memorable burn delivered to Slender in The Merry Wives of Windsor: “You Banbury cheese!”
Denied as we are most meats, fish, and dairy products, perhaps adherents of the Burton Diet can compensate with fruit?
Fruits “infect the blood, and putrefy it.” (Though apples, along with pearmains and sweetings, are “good against melancholy.”)
Are leafy greens and garnishes similarly infectious?
Herbs, Roots, Vegetables, and Spices:
Cucumbers, melons and gourds are “disallowed,” but cabbage is the worst, causing troublesome dreams and bringing “heaviness to the soul.” (I always knew there was a scientific reason I hated it.) Moreover, before eating what Horace calls “bloodless meals,” recall what the great Roman poet said of such demeaning feasts:
Their lives, that each such herbs, must needs be short,
And ’tis a fearful thing to report,
That men should feed on such a kind of meat
Which very juments [beasts of burden] would refuse to eat.
Oh, and no peas either, whether eaten properly with a fork or gauchely with a knife.
Parsnips and potatoes barely make the cut, but I hope you like your food bland, because garlic and onions send “gross fumes to the brain” and “make men mad.” Pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, dates, oil, vinegar, mustard, and sugar are out, as are all sweet, “sharp and sour things.”
Surely Burton would allow us some salt? He’s not a monster after all.
Alas, salt and salt-meats, being “great procurers of this disease [melancholy],” should be avoided. We need only look at those Egyptian priests who abstained from salt so “that their souls might be free from perturbations” to see the folly of our ways.
Those “perturbations” are starting to sound preferable to a life of deprivation. At any rate, give me unlimited bread and a cold one and I’ll make do.
Bread and Beer:
Hallelujah! On the controversial subject of bread, Burton proves less dogmatic than some gluten-free advocates. While warning of the “melancholy juice and wind” bread can produce, he nonetheless appears to endorse oaten loaves.
A pint isn’t great for the melancholy — a cup of cold wine is more salubrious — though imbibing black Bohemian beer, a “monstrous drink, like the River Styxx,” has an “especial virtue against melancholy” if the drinker is accustomed to such waters as plied by the ferryman Charon.
And what of all those treats not mentioned by Burton? Can we eat those?
Watch the master puncture some more dreams:
To these noxious simples we may reduce an infinite number of compound, artificial, made dishes, of which our cooks afford us a great variety, as tailors do fashions in our apparel. Such are puddings stuffed with blood…baked meats, soused indurate meats, fired and boiled, buttered meats, condite, powdered, and over-dried; all cakes, simnels, buns cracknels made with butter, spice, etc. fritters, pancakes, pies, sausages, and those several sauces, sharp or over-sweet…[that] do generally engender gross humours, fill the stomach with crudities, and all those inward parts with obstructions.
I’ll see you in hell, Burton.
The Burton Diet seems excessively restrictive, if not sadistic, but we should remember that Burton, despite his obsessive nature, is also a flexible thinker. “There is no rule so general as not to admit of some exception,” and as for diets, Burton allows that “custom doth alter nature itself.” After all, the Emperor Montezuma ate “man’s flesh raw and roasted” and Mithridates trained himself to drink poison, so how bad could some soused indurate meats be?
If we are used to certain foods, or if we particularly delight in them, then abstaining from them would mean we choose to live in “mere tyranny [to] the strict rules of physic.” And that, presumably, would only increase our melancholy.
So treat yourself to the incubus-breeding hare, to that hypocritical bird, and to that confounding carp. It would be infinitely sad, and a folly, not to.
Image Credit: Flickr/asbruff
Houghton Mifflin has posted a long excerpt of Jonathan Safran Foer’s forthcoming book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Amazon also has the excerpt up.) And, well, I don’t quite know what to say about it. Have a look. You’ll see. It’s a long, furious stream of consciousness – the warp speed thought process of the 8-year-old, genius protagonist, Oskar – with a punch in the gut finale. It seems that this book is sure to produce a frenzy among critics and readers when it comes out in April, but it’s too early to know whether that frenzy will be positive or negative. On Neal Pollack’s blog, the quality of the excerpt and the book’s use of 9/11 as a plot point are already being debated.
In the meantime, I also started re-reading Catch-22, probably one of my all time favorites. I made plenty of references to Catch-22 in connection with William Boyd’s An Ice Cream War and probably some other novels I read over the course of the last two years. Nevertheless, re-reading Catch-22 was a feast precisely because of all the literary horizons this modest novel created. Never a bestseller, Catch-22 became a cult classic and sold millions despite staying under the radar. Its influence on other writers is, I believe, huge. Aside from Yossarian being my obvious favorite for fearing that everyone, from his own commanders to the German anti-aircraft gunners, are conspiring to kill him, I mostly enjoy Milo Minderbinder’s stories. Milo is a good-hearted capitalist who contracts the Germans for the Syndicate he has formed, and no one can oppose him in that – or in bombing his own squadron for a hefty sum paid by the Germans – because everyone has a share in the Syndicate, and “what is good for M & M Enterprises [i.e. the Syndicate] is good for you.” Simply brilliant. The tragic story of Major Major Major Major, who became a Major in the squadron strictly due to an IBM deficiency and whose name – Major Major Major – ruined his life at every turn, is a major influence in my father’s efforts to name me savci (prosecutor) in Turkish. As some of you might remember, my father hoped that with such a name I could avoid any and all run-ins with the law by declaring my name, which in that case would go “I am Prosecutor Peker!” Luckily, my mother rejected the idea, but in essence that is Major Major Major Major’s story. Aarfy with his calm pipe smoking in the plane while flak explodes all around them, Orr with his mastery in crashing planes, Appleby with the flies in his eyes, Nately with his psychotic lover whore, General Peckem with his hate for General Dreedle, Dreedle’s hate towards his son-in-law, his son-in-law’s affection towards Dreedle’s nurse, Colonel Cathcart with his insecurities, Colonel Korn with his tendency to manipulate Colonel Cathcart, Sheisskopf with his love of marches, and many more. There are too many insider jokes and brilliant moments in Catch-22 to write a decent review of the novel. I just believe, like I only do with The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, that everyone should absolutely read this novel and cherish its wonderful moments of hilarity and sad reflections on humanity.By the time I finished Catch-22 I was already back in Turkey for the summer. I am now done with my paralegal job and await the beginning of school in the fall. Nevertheless, next I picked up Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey edited by Anastasia A. Ashman and Jennifer Eaton Gokmen. I have been meaning to read this collection of essays by expatriate women in Turkey for a long time now. I remember coming to Turkey over a year ago and reading reviews of The Expat Harem in local papers and thinking that it could be very interesting. Right before coming back to Istanbul a month and a half ago I saw my Turkish roommate Uzay’s Minnesotan girlfriend Annastacia reading the book and assumed that she picked it out of my library. Wrong! She’d actually bought it and told me that she enjoyed it a lot. I’ve always viewed Annastacia as a potential candidate for the expat society of Turkey, so her reading the book egged me on and I picked it up. The collection is organized in nine parts, which are unique to Turkey and include various customs that foreign women find especially strange, unique, pleasant or repelling. I started reading the stories at random, there are twenty-nine of them, and realized that each one identifies a unique quality of life in Turkey. Seen through the eyes of an expat who chose to live in Turkey adds a different color to the customs and qualities that I already knew. To a Turkish person the stories are very revealing, flattering and intriguing. It is, after all, very refreshing to see commonalities in society through a different pair of eyes. I imagine that any foreign person reading The Expat Harem would find the stories equally revealing, informative and interesting. Each author employs a fresh style and tone, the stories are fluid and the collection is organized very neatly by Ashman and Gokmen, which creates an excellent journey through the quirky experiences of expats, all women in this case, in Turkey. If you are planning a visit to Turkey I urge you to pick up The Expat Harem to get a solid idea about the country’s culture. If not, I believe you would still enjoy the collection for its down to earth tone, accessibility and humane moments.See also: Part 1, 2